Biden’s border headache to come whipping back

Immigration is about to roar back as a major crisis for President Biden: Republicans are already testing harsh new border messages for the coming midterm ad war.

Driving the news: This week’s reports — that the administration plans to end the use of a COVID-19 immigration ban called Title 42 by May 23 — put a timeline on a scenario for which Homeland Security officials have spent months.

  • Axios recently scooped details of officials’ internal deliberations about how to manage a hypothetical “mass migration event” in the coming weeks or months.
  • The end of Title 42 and the movements that could trigger is what they were talking about.

The big picture: Democrats were already worried about losing suburban voters and centrist Hispanic voters over inflation and culture wars. The new border arises may only exacerbate those concerns while inflaming national security considerations.

  • The White House has been in triage mode as it responds to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a Supreme Court nomination, rising inflation, culture wars and multi-state challenges to voting rights and abortion rights.
  • That all comes while it tries to salvage elements of Biden’s Build Back Better plan stuck in a 50-50 Senate.

What we’re hearing: The GOP senses opportunity and has pounced on immigration as an election issue.

  • The Republican National Committee on Wednesday rolled out part of a new video series focused on the border, which it calls “Unchecked.”

What they’re saying: “You would think there would be some concern about the politics of this,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told Axios. “I think this is a disaster for the administration and for Democrats generally.”

  • Some Democrats are raising concerns, as well. Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) says he’s worried the administration doesn’t have a plan in place to deal with the fallout and prematurely ending the program could result in a humanitarian crisis.
  • Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said he thought it would be a “huge mistake” to do something that “might invite doubling, tripling, quadrupling of the numbers at the border.”
  • Sen. Joe Manchin (DW.Va.) also told reporters Thursday he’s opposed to ending Title 42, saying: “Just watch the news y’all put out every day, what’s coming across.”

There’s also support from many Democrats to end Title 42.

  • For example, Sen. Bob Menendez (DN.J.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the policy “is not the answer to whatever immigration crisis there is.”
  • If ending Title 42 leads to a new border crisis, he said, Democrats need a new law to deal with it — not keep leaning on the public health order.

Between the lines: Immigration has been a no-win situation for Biden.

Republicans blame his relaxation of hardline Trump-era policies for inviting new waves of undocumented immigration.

Progressives criticize the administration for not doing more to help undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers.

  • Some congressional Democrats have held press conferences and sent letters calling for the end of Title 42.
  • On the other hand, Democratic border-area representatives like Henry Cuellar and Vicente Gonzalez of Texas joined forces with Republicans on Tuesday.
  • They petitioned the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services to keep Title 42 until the government is better prepared and stronger measures are in place to address a border arises.
  • Kelly and his fellow Arizona Democrat, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, also recently warned Biden to keep Title 42 in place until agencies are ready.

How we got here: Title 42’s use, begun under Trump and continued under Biden, has allowed officials to automatically turn back asylum seekers because of the COVID-19 emergency.

  • Court challenges and the virus’ transition from pandemic to endemic set the clock ticking on rescinding it.
  • While many progressives and immigration activists have long criticized the policy as inhumane, argued it was illegal and sought its end, it’s proved a useful tool in immigration arising from undocumented immigrants to the southern border.
  • Without it, officials predict surges up to a potential 18,000 people a day.

The bottom line: Immigration is bound to play a bigger role in some midterm races than others.

  • But it could also fuel greater attacks from the right alleging that Biden is being weak and not controlling the border.

Editor’s note: Axios’ Hans Nichols and Sophia Cai contributed reporting to this story.

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